Sermon delivered on Christmas 1C, December 30, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus. OH.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 61.10-62.3; Psalm 147.1-21; Galatians 3.23-25, 4.4-7; John 1.1-18.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! This past week I was reading about “blue Christmas” services that some churches seem to be embracing with increasing frequency. “Blue Christmas” services are offered to people who have lost loved ones to death and/or who might not have any family with whom to celebrate Christmas, and who don’t feel like engaging in the joyous celebrations that characterize Christmas. The articles I read didn’t offer much detail about these services and so I must be circumspect in my observations. But as I read about these services and those who attend them, I couldn’t help feeling blue myself because it seems to me that they were not offering people any good news in the midst of their grieving, let alone the Good News of Jesus, God become human to rescue us from sin and death and the alienation between God and humans that our stubborn rebellion has caused. Unlike John’s magnificent prologue, which constitutes our gospel lesson, it’s almost like these services are saying to those who attend them, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has overcome it. Sorry about that.”
Don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that people who are grieving the loss of loved ones and/or other important things in their lives should put on some kind of phony front during Christmas. Every one of us here knows the terrible grief that death or loneliness can cause and we don’t feel much like celebrating when that happens. Because I had so many wonderful Christmases as a kid, each Christmas Eve I still miss keenly those who were an integral part of those parties, but who are now enjoying their rest in the Lord. I get all that. What bothers me is that I am afraid these kinds of services encourage those who grieve to wallow in their grief and make it all about them, rather than focusing on God’s ability in Jesus to bring about real healing in the power of the Spirit. And so this morning, I want us to look briefly at how the hope of the Incarnation can help us in our grief and to cope with the darkness when it confronts us. I think this is very important, especially since we are going to welcome a new member into God’s family today. As Turner grows up, he is going to need all the real hope he can get, just like the rest of us. And if you are one of those folks who is having a “blue Christmas,” I hope you are able to hear the good news of the Incarnation this morning as well.
“In the beginning was the Word…” With these words, John begins his gospel. What other book in the Bible opens with these words? If you said Genesis you are absolutely correct. This reminds us immediately about the goodness of God’s created order, and how after creating humans in his image, God pronounced his creation to be very good. But we look around our world and we don’t always see things that are very good. In fact, we often see quite the opposite. This, combined with some very bad and sloppy escape-from-the-world theology that some churches preach, makes us think that the world is bad and what is most important is the world of the spirit. We therefore conclude that God made a mistake when he created us and his world, and that God is angry with us and wants to do away with the whole thing and start over. This is just another version of the almost endless variety of gnosticism.
But in John’s gospel we hear a resounding no to this kind of wrong-headed thinking. Yes, human sin and the evil it propagates have made a mess out of God’s good creation and resulted in all kinds of suffering and misery. As Paul reminds us in Romans, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6.23) and all creation, us included, has been groaning under God’s curse that human sin brought about (cf. Genesis 3.1-19; Romans 8.19-23). Despite this, despite our persistent and willful rebellion against God and God’s desire for us to live happy, prosperous lives, John is reminding us that in becoming human, God remains faithful to his creation and creatures. We matter to God. That is why God became human, to rescue us from our slavery to sin and death by dying on a cross for us. If you want to know the true character and nature of God, look to Jesus. When you do, you cannot help but see the tender and merciful love of God for us.
And despite appearances to the contrary, especially when evil and disaster strike, when John emphasizes the creative power of Jesus by telling us he is the author of light and life—the light that shines in the darkness that cannot be overcome by the darkness—John is reminding us that God is very much active and in charge of his broken world, just like his Spirit was active and creative in bringing order out of chaos in Genesis 1.2ff. God intends to redeem his creation and us, and rescue us ultimately from our sin and the suffering and death it causes.
This is echoed throughout today’s psalm. The psalmist praises God’s creative power and affirms God’s desire and ability to heal the brokenhearted and establish his healing justice and righteousness in his world. Paul says something similar in today’s epistle lesson when he tells us that Jesus was born of a woman in the fullness of time. This reminds us that from all eternity, God’s plan to redeem his creatures and creation involves the calling of people to help him in this task. That is why God called Israel through Abraham. But Israel was part of the problem instead of part of the solution and so God sent himself to be and do for Israel what Israel had failed to be and do so that through Jesus the world could find healing, hope, and redemption.
God entered human history to save us, not so that we can escape this world by going to heaven, but rather so that he can use us as beacons of his light to bring his healing love to the world. That is why Jesus calls us to follow him by imitating him. We are to offer mercy and forgiveness instead of revenge and hatred. We are to bind up the sick and provide for the needy in all sorts of ways. We are to proclaim the Good News of Jesus by telling others about what he is doing for us in our lives and by how we live our lives in the light of the gospel.
And why do we do this? Because humans matter to God and as John will remind us at the end of his gospel, history and creation are going somewhere. In Jesus’ bodily resurrection, God launched his promised new creation in which he will ultimately right all the world’s wrongs, especially death, and heal up all our hurts. This is our hope and destiny and it is made possible because of God’s faithfulness to his word and his creation. We can trust God’s word, not only because God is God but because as we saw on Christmas Eve, God has a verifiable track record that he is good to his word to his people and world. This is why blue Christmases must not have the last word because even in the midst of sin, evil, and death, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. God will end our separation from him and our loved ones so that when death strikes, as it inevitably will, we can grieve as people with a hope and a future (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). In Jesus, we are reminded powerfully that we worship the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that are not (Romans 4.17). This is the only real remedy for our grief. Thank God it is available to anyone who says yes to God’s gracious offer to us in Jesus to have abundant life!
And if you think that is a pipe-dream, I would invite you to talk to my wife and her family. Three years ago, Dondra’s dad died two weeks before Christmas after struggling mightily with a long and debilitating illness. It was not pretty to watch and it wore us all down. Dondra’s family had every reason to observe a blue Christmas that year, but they didn’t. Yes, we were sad and yes we missed dad very much. Still do. But in the midst of our grief and sorrow there was a joy that transcended the sting of death and the separation that resulted. It was palpable for all to see. The light shone in the darkness of death but the darkness did not overcome it because her family knows Jesus. They have hope for the present and the future because they believe in the resurrection of the body and God’s promised new creation. You can have that same hope too. When your future is secure, it makes all the difference for how you live in the present.
In a few minutes we are going to baptize Turner and bring him into God’s family here at St. Augustine’s, and consequently into God’s hope and future in Jesus, the Word become human. Turner will have his fair share of joys and sorrows, of successes and failures. He will be confronted by darkness at every stage of his life. And so along the way he is going to need to learn, and his family and godparents are going to need to be reminded of, God’s great love for him (and them) in Jesus, and of the active, creative, and healing Presence of God’s Holy Spirit, both in the world and their lives. God calls us to help in this task. And because of this, we will have work to do on an ongoing basis to support Turner and his family in the faith. Are you ready to do your part with the help and power of God? If you really know Jesus, you know that his light does shine in the midst of our darkness. You know where you are headed and that nothing in all creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.39). That is why we can actually have a Merry Christmas in the midst of the darkness of our grief. Help Turner learn this so that like you, he too can have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.